The New England Patriots had possession of the ball with the lead on three separate occasions in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos. On those three possessions, the Patriots converted on just one first down. The time of possession of these drives: 1:27, 1:20, and 1:33, for a total of 4 minutes and 20 seconds.
These drives spanned 14 offensive plays, including three Patriots penalties, and Tom Brady dropped back to pass on all but one of these plays. If the Patriots had run the ball, they would have easily drained the rest of the clock since the Broncos had just two timeouts remaining.
So why didn't the Patriots run the ball? The Patriots pass the ball on these supposed 4-minute drills more than any other team in the league. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a similar fourth quarter against the Bills in week 2, and the decision making allowed Buffalo to get back in the game. It came back to haunt the Patriots against the Broncos.
The Patriots didn't even try to run the ball
New England ran on a measly two plays in the first half before they decided to not even try to put up points before halftime. Five of the Patriots 16 rushes came on that conceded two minute drill with Shaq Mason, the team's best run blocking interior lineman, not on the field.
The two scripted rushing plays in the first half were dead in the water. They matched up rookie right guard Tre Jackson on defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, and Wolfe absolutely annihilated Jackson and pushed him into the backfield in front of LeGarrette Blount, ending the play.
On the second play, they rushed James White up the gut. The play failed because they tried to match up tight end Scott Chandler on the aforementioned Wolfe inside the 10 yard line, and Wolfe basically pushed Chandler into White, tripping up the runner and ending the play.
That was the extent of the valued rushing plays, because the Broncos were all too happy to let the Patriots run out the clock prior to halftime.
Oh, and on the very first play of the second half, the Patriots ran behind Jackson at right guard, with Mason at fullback. Wolfe knocked back Jackson and made the tackle.
The running backs aren't decisive in their opportunities
There are times when Jackson or Mason or Bryan Stork or Josh Kline just absolutely whiff on their blocks and the defense stops the run play. There are also times where the defense puts the offensive line in a stalemate situation and the running back has to make the play on their own.
More often than not, Blount will just meander his way into the offensive line and not force any yards after contact. Gone are the days when Blount would lower his shoulder and knock down defenders; for whatever reason, Blount isn't running with any urgency.
Then there's James White, who just lacks the functional strength to break any tackles and the Patriots don't give him many chances to touch the ball in space.
And then there's Brandon Bolden, who at least looks like he's trying. Bolden is valuable as a receiver and so the Patriots feel comfortable putting him in the backfield and letting him run for three or four yards to open up potential mismatches for Bolden in the passing game. White doesn't earn the same defensive consideration as a runner.
The interior linemen aren't doing their job
The line is young and they are facing a high level of competition, but every player has a clear weakness. Jackson and Kline struggle to drive their defenders away from the line. Bryan Stork is still getting back into football shape. Shaq Mason even reaches outside of his frame when trying to take down linebackers, which makes his block really easy to shed.
Instead of opening a crease for the running back to slam into for maybe three yards, there's always at least one of the guards that is failing to do their job that allows either a defensive lineman or linebacker to get into the rushing pocket that will force the ballcarrier to stutter and will disrupt their momentum.
Dion Lewis was able to use his otherworldly evasive maneuvers to make plays, but no other rusher offers that value. At the very least, the Patriots should have rushed more behind Mason instead of Kline or Jackson.
How can the Patriots fix it?
It's not an easy solution, but the current talent on the roster isn't cutting it. The interior linemen could improve moving forward, but they need to be leading a rusher that is willing to dip the shoulder to try and push the pile. This line is not going to open up a rushing lane against a top defensive line, so the Patriots need to be willing to take the yards available instead of pretending that some lane will open up before a defender makes a play in the backfield.
Blount, specifically, needs to start playing angrier. He's not the same player that he was earlier this season, or even last year. It's an honest question to pose whether or not he was frustrated sitting behind Lewis, even though they are great friends.
Until Blount finds his old ways, Bolden is honestly the Patriots best option in the backfield, even though he's seeing the fewest number of snaps.
New England has to find a solution because their rushing game has been pitiful since the loss of Lewis.